PHOTO: Roland Palencia (Copyright: Debra Evans)
Last month the board of directors of Equality California announced they had selected Roland Palencia as their new Executive Director. The announcement surprised many who had not heard his name before, despite an impressive track record in LGBT organizing, philanthropy and business management. Blogger and journalist Karen Ocamb covered all of this in an interview she posted on her blog last month ("First interview with Ronald Palencia") and Prop 8 Trial Tracker just featured an OpEd by Palencia a couple of days ago ("Marriage equality is an anchor for full social equality").
Today I bring you something a little different. My good friend Gloria Nieto interviewed Palencia a few days ago and focused on issues that are particularly relevant to the topics I cover on this blog. This is why I was thrilled when she asked me if she could post the interview on Blabbeando as a guest post.
I have chosen to split the interview into two parts. In this post Palencia discusses his Guatemalan background, the violence that marked his younger years in his country of birth and his extraordinary history of activism in the Latino LGBT and HIV prevention community of California. He also addresses possible mistakes that Equality California might have committed in their failed battle against Proposition 8 and the prospect of going back to the ballot boxes in 2012 to try to defeat the measure.
In the second part of the interview, Palencia goes into the role of Equality California on other progressive social justice issues such as the economy, education, health care and immigration. He also touches on President Barack Obama's "evolving" views on marriage equality. But all that will have to wait. For now, enjoy the first part of this extraordinary interview.
GLORIA NIETO: Tell me what your history is? I understand you are Guatemalan.
ROLAND PALENCIA: Yes, I was born and raised in Guatemala. My family was very politically involved. My father was one of those people, he was a small businessman and also a revolutionary. And he wanted to basically get rid of the military dictatorship that Guatemalans had been living with for many decades. So he was killed. I also had another cousin who was 18 when she was killed. My father remained disappeared for quite a while until we found his remains. You know? Many of my family members went into exile. Some went to Mexico City, Australia, Spain and Vancouver, Canada. Most of them are still there now. My mom was concerned about our safety. She came to the US and she eventually brought us here. The US was providing military aid to Guatemala at that time. So Central Americans were not really eligible for political asylum so when I came here I was almost 18, I was already an adult. I eventually went to UCLA. That is when I started to come out as a gay man. You know colleges and universities are the environment where many of us find ourselves. Also I got a sense of what being a Latino in the US was. Obviously I felt this sharp contrast with my family who were small businesses. We were not rich but we were somewhat prosperous. Basically here there is the sharp discrimination that many immigrants feel that kind of shaped my consciousness and that along that with the fact that I was coming out as gay Latino man really got me to really think about what I wanted to do. About the conversations that people have about both immigrants and LGBT people. So in 1982, I was one of the co-founders of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU). Which eventually created the leadership that helped to found Bienestar. I don’t know if you know Oscar De La O but he was the founder of Bienestar.
RP:A lot of that leadership came out of GLLU and of course, many of them are dead now. Many of them died of HIV and AIDS. I lost, I don’t know, seven out of 10 friends. It was a huge epidemic and it hit the activist community really hard. So it was unfortunate about that, aside from the human suffering, just the pain that the pain the community had. I can think of Jose Ramirez. He was Newyorican. He was one of those individuals who really involved in the civil rights movement. Many involved with the United Farm Workers. They really had a connection to the civil rights movement. I think that we lost that whole generation. And we lost the consciousness and the solidarity thinking that came along with that.
GN: You know I have also been of the opinion that men of that age - and I wouldn’t say my numbers were as high as what you are talking about - but definitely, I talk about men who I should be growing old with who are not here anymore. I also think because we all grew up with the feminist movement that there was a lot more solidarity with women.
GN: and being able to operate from basic feminist principles of inclusion and equality, that losing so many of that generation, there was a loss of transferring that information, those principles and experience to younger men.
RP: So the hand off in terms of certain values, the basic tenets of the solidarity movement, that whole notion of interconnection and intersecting movements was lost, we lost a lot of that. I don’t think we have analyzed the huge impact that the loss of that generation has had on the movement and where we are now. I can think of Frank Mendiola who was a farm worker child. He was raised in the farms and he became a union activists. He was the one who organized the Gay and Lesbian Center. He was like 24 and he was organizing the biggest LGBT institution. So that is part of my history. In the late 80’s I founded VIVA along with other friends. That was basically and LGBT artists organization.
GN: And then you are a founder of HONOR PAC too?
RP: No, I am not a founder of HONOR PAC. I am on the advisory board.
GN: Oh OK.
RP: The main thing about VIVA is that so many of our gay brothers were dying that we created that organization to make sure that we kept their art and memories alive. One of the impetus for that is that so many gay Latino men were dying we got Latinas and Latinos involved and to really promote our art and the expanded consciousness that comes along with that. So that went on for like four or five years. Then I went to work at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. I was the vice president and chief of operations. Between being a consultant and a full time employee, I was there about eight years. And then I went to La Clinica Monseñor Oscar Romero. I was the Executive Director there. I was the E.D. for four and a half years. After that I started my philanthropic work with the foundations. I became the senior program officer at the California Endowment. Now I have been appointed as the next Executive Director of Equality California.
GN: Well that is quite the story.
RP: It’s a lot.
GN: The Prop 8 campaign did not turn out the way we wanted it to. I am curious what you were able to do at that time. How were you able to help?
RP: I think I am one of those people who wish we had done more. I also know that there were a lot of blind spots. Things that campaign could have done a lot better. We all have learned a lot of lessons from that. I think that one of the lessons we learned was that we have to talk to the people. You know we can’t do these things in a vacuum. WE have to have these one to one conversations in all kinds of community and all kinds of languages. We also have to understand that our opponents are very organized and very powerful and they have a lot of money. They have basically built in infrastructure of churches that are not on our side that they can turn on and turn off. So I was one of those people who was not as involved.
I think it is important to acknowledge that. I gave some money and made some phone calls. I remember on election day I was educating voters. It was outside the voting booths within the legal limits. I was out there for about 10 hours. At the end of the day, they wanted to arrest me. I was definitely involved.
I was involved in the Obama campaign. I went to Nevada to knock on doors. I was involved in the Obama campaign a lot more than the Prop 8 campaign.
GN: Just in terms of my own experience, I have to say that this campaign definitely scarred me. I have to say this was because of the really bad treatment I got from Equality California - and I mean really bad treatment. Here I was running a hunk of the campaign here in San Jose, got talked to like I was a dog. Talked to incredibly disrespectfully, couldn’t get any resources. I would get resources from people in other counties. I would drive to Santa Cruz to get yard signs. You know that is now way to run a campaign. There was an evening when some of the labor folks had brought hotel maids to help with phone banking. We did not have a Spanish script. So they were reduced to emptying the garbage cans and cleaning up. I was crying and crying and crying that night. I still apologize to the union people for that. Then campaign staff person says that they have to check on any scripts to make sure they are culturally competent. Of course! My response in my head though was 'fuck you, fuck you for treating my folks like this'. I worked with Luis Lopez [currently a candidate for state Assembly] to get window signs in Spanish. We generated these signs and offered to folks in San Francisco. We also got them done in Vietnamese, too. We got them out all through San Jose. I offered them to San Francisco and never heard a word. Nothing.
RP: That should have never happened.
RP: Those are stories of things that should have never happened. By the way, my activism was with HONOR PAC, not necessarily with the bigger campaign.
GN: But why did HONOR PAC have an office in LA, the were the only ones with an office in LA?
RP: They got some space from Supervisor Gloria Molina.
GN: I know but I am just saying that the campaign never opened up anything in LA.
RP: Correct. There was a relationship. If we go back in 2012, which is going to be a daunting task, these things need to be in place.* Gloria Nieto is a Latina lesbian blogger. She writes for the San Francisco Gate, in the Chronicle's blogger section, City Brights. Gloria lives in Northern California with her esposa, three dogs and three cats. She is looking forward to having a job before she is eligible for social security